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Museum of London archaeologists spent much of 2006 recovering human and animal remains discovered at the Royal London Hospital from 262 burials. All were processed and – because of markings and cuts – discovered to be the objects of study by 18th Century anatomists. They form the basis and inspiration for this new exhibition at the museum: Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men.

The London Hospital 1760 C The Royal London Hospital Archives

The London Hospital 1760 © The Royal London Hospital Archives

In the early 1830s the government wished to solve a problem which had been a long time festering: the illegal trade in cadavers. Demand by hospitals was huge and legal supply (a restricted number of executed criminals) was tiny. The result of this was surgeons purchasing bodies from grave-robbers and in some cases, murderers. So in 1832 it passed the Anatomy Act which allowed unclaimed corpses – typically from workhouses – to be passed to the anatomists. This is the pivotal event around which the exhibition is based.

The consequences were many, but mainly the disappearance of the resurrection men and the professionalisation of surgery and the rise of teaching hospitals replacing private anatomy schools from the previous century. Less than 10 years before the Act saw the launch of The Lancet, which insisted on peer-reviewed research and campaigned against ingrained bad practice – such as nepotism – in the profession. And in the decade following we see the introduction of basic anaesthesia with the use of ether. So surgery was transformed on many fronts in these decades that are the focus of the exhibition. Hence the show has many strands and layers which are masterfully managed.

Central to the whole exhibition – but by no means dominating – are skeletons and wax models. These are what trainee surgeons used to learn their trade. To minimise atrophy, corpses were used mainly in the cooler months. In the height of summer, learning aids tended to be restricted to  the use of wax anatomy models. These are extraordinary sophisticated, detailed and yes, beautiful in their own way. The master of  this particular craft was Joseph Towne.

Joseph Towne wax model, created for 1851 Great Exhibition C Gordon Museum, King's College London 1

Joseph Towne wax model, created for 1851 Great Exhibition © Gordon Museum, King’s College London

Self portrait of Joseph Towne (1808-79) c1825  C Gordon Museum, King's C...

Self portrait of Joseph Towne (1808-79) c1825 © Gordon Museum, King’s College London.

The public were terrified of resurrection men and even more of “London Burkers” – after Burke and Hare – men who actually murdered to supply fresh bodies to the surgeons. The most notorious case was the so-called Italian Boy. The story is here represented by post-execution portraits of the murderers. We have an example from St Bride’s crypt (worth a visit) of a metal coffin, the resort of paranoid wealthy who wished to prevent their bodies from being snatched. The whole business of anatomists and body snatchers (the public and satirists seemed to tar them all with the same brush) were lampooned by cartoonists, no surprises we have Hogarth and Rowlandson, but I rather like the one by William Austin.

Clift drawing of Bishop C Royal College of Surgeons

Clift drawing of Italian Boy murderer John Bishop © Royal College of Surgeons

The Anatomist Overtaken by the Watch, by William Austin, 1773 C Museum o...

The Anatomist Overtaken by the Watch, by William Austin, 1773 © Museum of London.

There is so much to see and learn here, objects lent from our leading medical museums, colleges and institutions. In addition to the above described we have portraits of the leading surgeons of the day; medical toolkits (amputation, trepanning etc.); specimens in jars (compulsory!); anatomical drawings and illustrations; tattoo’d skin samples. And it goes on.

The word “macabre” gets bandied about. Not from me. This show is thoughtful, inciteful, beautifully arranged, displayed, lit. The curators are to be congratulated for their selection and how they contextualised all the objects, the whole display. I can’t remember learning so much in such a short time. This mesmerising show has to be one of the exhibitions of this year, and quite possibly next  as well. Don’t miss. 

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men runs at the Museum of London until 14th April 2013. Entry is £9.00, free to Friends, £4.50 to Art Fund members. Other concessions apply. More information.

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